Not Your Grandfather’s Mining Regulation   Leave a comment

Part 3 of 3

This is a reprint of another article in the Alaska Contractor magazine. Similar to the last one, I’ve added graphics

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by Bob Loeffler

Americans have become much more sensitive about the environment than they were a generation ago, and laws to protect our air, water and land have improved dramatically. The practices and results that were common in previous generations would be a matter of criminal penalty today. There has been a regulatory and cultural shift since the advent of Earth Day and enactments of the National Environmental Protection Act in 1970.

These changes have dramatically affected today’s mining operations. In fact, there has been a much-needed, steady improvement in mine regulation and practices in the past 40 years – and you can see it in the positive environmental record of Alaska’s miners.

Changes began in the 1970s. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (which requires Environmental Impact Statements for proposed projects), the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. It also established the Environmental Protection Agency and passed comprehensive regulation for the coal industry.

Despite the laws of the 1970s, it took some time before the regulators, industry and science caught up with the new environmental sensitivity. In 1985, the EPA reported that “Date on management methods at mining facilities indicate that only a small percentage of mines currently monitor their ground water, use run-on/run-off controls or liner, or employ leachate collection, detection and removal systems.” The regulations, science and required protection measures we not take for granted were just being implemented in the 1980s and 1990s. But by 1999, a National Academy of Sciences study prepared for Congress concluded that the “laws and regulations that provide mining-related environmental protection is complicated but generally effective.”

Because of the obvious differences between new and old mines, regulators and industry generally refer to old mines as legacy mines. Legacy mines were generally designed and constructed with inferior environmental standards and practices, compared with mines of today, and statistics bear that out.

One recent study looked at hard-rock mines the EPA has placed on its National Priority List as superfund clean-up sites. The study found that there were 53 hard-rock mines on the EPA’s list: 47 were permitted in the pre-regulatory era (before 1970), six were authorized in the transition era (before 1989) and none was permitted after 1990. The study confirmed what those in the industry know – that changing regulations and practices have clearly improved mining’s environmental performance.

The changes in regulatory standards are reflected in the history of Alaska’s mining laws. Our first hard-rock mines since World War II began operation in 1989. At that time, Alaska had no requirement that mine operators reclaim land they had disturbed and no requirement for operators to provide financial assurance that mining sites would be reclaimed. Alaska allowed mining companies to disturb the land and leave it disturbed.

In 1990, the Alaska Legislature passed a mine reclamation requirement for state, federal and private land in Alaska. The law became effective October 1991. It also required that mines put up funds for reclamation (a reclamation bond) before they began operation. But the reclamation bond required in the new law was designed for placer mines, which were then the dominant part of the industry. The maximum amount of the required bond was less than the amount needed to reclaim hard-rock mine sites.

Between 1991 and 2004, four hard-rock mines were authorized on state land. Each of these operations voluntarily agreed to submit financial assurance for the entire mine disturbance, even thought it was greater than the law required.

In 2004, the Alaska Legislature with the support of state agencies, the mining industry and some environmental groups changed the law to require full reclamation bonding for hard-rock mining. Beginning in July 2004, the state required all mines to put up a bond to cover the full reclamation cost before the mine begins operating. All mines in Alaska have updated their bonds since the law was passed.

Alaska has a unique requirement as part of its mine permitting, a requirement no other state has. All states require mines to monitor their performance to make sure they live up to permit requirements. Agencies also monitor and inspect the performance. But Alaska has an innovative requirement that goes one step further. We hire someone to monitor the agencies.

Every hard-rock mine regulated by the state requires a third-party audit every five years. A consultation firm is hired to audit both the mine’s compliance with permit requirements and the state agencies’ inspection and administration of those requirements. The auditing firm makes recommendations for improving operations and regulation, and the subsequent audit investigates whether the previous recommendations were implemented.

These changes – as well as the fact that Alaska’s hard-rock industry is young, with no legacy mines, have resulted in an Alaska mining industry with an excellent record of protecting the environment, particularly water quality and fish. Agency monitoring tells us that fish downstream of all Alaska’s hard-rock mines are as populous and healthy as they were before the mines existed.

Today, Alaska has a strict and realistic “set of requirements to regulate mining, and our mining industry has an enviable environmental record. That’s not to say that the laws and regulations are perfect. The future will no doubt bring challenges and make it clear that we can make even more improvements. But with the regulatory requirements currently in place, there is no excuse to permit a mine that would degrade the environment, especially water quality or fish habitat. And that almost certainly would not have been true of mines developed in your grandfather’s time.

Bob Loeffer is a part-time Visiting Professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage, and the partner in the consulting firm, Jade North LLC. For seven years, he was director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water within the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Posted May 3, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska, Conservation, History, Mining

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